Jan 6, 2017
Pregame Fueling

Unfortunately, there is not one specific menu for the perfect pregame meal. Factors such as the type of sport, time of game, and individual athlete preferences play a big role in coming up with the best plan. Overall, however, the prescription is fairly simple: a high-carbohydrate meal that provides the right amount of calories for the athlete’s activity. They should be neither hungry nor overly full.

“The goal is to top off energy and fluid stores,” says Rob Skinner, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, Senior Sports Dietitian with the US Olympic Committee. “You don’t want the athlete focused on anything other than the event, so it’s critical that they are not thinking about their stomach. A lot of athletes have told me in the past that all they could think about during the game was how hungry they were or how upset their stomach was. That was probably due to not eating right beforehand, and it took their focus off the game.”

The right pregame meal will charge an athlete’s batteries, both physically and mentally. “The pregame meal is an energy source for the entire system,” says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, a veteran sports dietitian who has worked with athletes at all levels. “If an athlete is playing on an un-fed system, they won’t have the energy to access glycogen and fat stores for optimal physical performance. The meal also raises blood-sugar levels to improve brain function.”

Most nutritionists suggest that carbohydrates be the star of the pregame meal, taking up one-half to two-thirds of the plate. Carbs are important because they add glucose to the bloodstream quickly, making energy available to the athlete during the contest.

“Somewhere around 65 to 70 percent of athletes’ pregame calories need to come from carbohydrates,” says Randy Bird, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, Director of Sports Nutrition for the University of Virginia. “This ensures they’re going into the match with glycogen stores as full as they can possibly be.”

“Good carbohydrate choices are simple foods that are also nutrient-dense,” says Dorfman. “This includes enriched white bread, plain crackers, fruits and vegetables, and cereal without added fiber. These work well because they are easily digested and their energy is made available for use more quickly.”

“I add fruit to every pregame meal, too,” Bird says. “Fruits have natural sugar, and that’s the kind of sugar I want our athletes to eat. All the carbs they’re consuming will be converted to glucose in the blood stream, and fruit is an even quicker route.”

Some protein is essential for muscle and tissue repair, and because there is usually some fat in protein-rich foods, it will also make athletes feel full. But athletes need to be sure their pregame protein source isn’t too fatty since fats can make them feel sluggish or even nauseous. Bird says having a lean protein source like one chicken breast or a small cut of a lean meat like a sirloin or strip steak works well.

Amy Bragg, Director of Performance Nutrition with the University of Alabama athletics department, agrees that pregame meals must be low in fat. “Fat stays in the stomach for six to eight hours, so if you’re eating fat at a pregame meal four hours before a game, your body isn’t going to get that fuel until after the game is over,” she explains. “Eating that type of food — fried foods, lots of salad dressing, gravies — will cause blood to be pulled to the stomach to do the work of digestion. That blood is then not available to deliver oxygen and nutrients to muscles and fuel performance.”

To avoid foods high in fat, grilled, broiled, and steamed choices are great. Dorfman calls it a “clean diet,” which means nothing breaded, deep fried, or with lots of sauce. She also says that if her athletes are going to eat any added fats, they should come from a natural source like olive oil.

Very close to competition time, Dorfman suggests steering clear of some other foods, as well. “Complex fatty foods like trail mix, peanut butter, dairy, or high-fiber foods can’t be broken down and digested by athletes’ bodies an hour before a game,” she says.

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